Cities Are Working to Put Fewer People in Jail. Here’s Why.

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Arthur Rizer, Director of Criminal Justice and Security Policy, R Street Institute

Now is the time to prioritize the issue of mass jailing.

This large financial burden jeopardizes public safety when low risk offenders are placed in jail, increasing their likelihood of reoffending.  Helping individuals reach stability through connections to treatment and community services decreases the likelihood of continued engagement in criminal activity.

Arthur Rizer, Director of Criminal Justice and Security Policy for the R Street Institute and a former police officer and federal prosecutor, offers a conservative’s perspective on the necessity of reducing jail populations nationwide. In a conversation with the National League of Cities, Rizer detailed why cities need to rethink who they jail:

What best helps policymakers understand why they should prioritize jail use only for those who pose a risk to public safety?

Arthur Rizer (AR): When low-risk individuals are put behind bars even for 24 hours, they become more likely to resort to crime once they leave detention.  This snowball effect is even more problematic when considering that children raised in homes with an incarcerated parent are more likely to engage in criminal activity later in life.

Lastly, many localities rely primarily on a bail bond system to determine who stays in jail.  It becomes a safety issue when someone who poses a risk to public safety remains in society due to the ability to post bail.

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In your article, “Want less crime? Put fewer people in jail,” you state that not only has the pretrial population – those who are in jail awaiting trial and presumed innocent – driven 99 percent of jail growth from 2000 to 2015, but also that the rate of reoffending has increased to 65 percent for certain populations.  Do you see a link between these stats?

AR: Absolutely. Once a person goes to jail, even for a short period of time, their rate of reoffending skyrockets. Why does this happen? For many Americans with comfortable, middle class jobs, missing a few days of work will not result in an instant termination. For individuals coming from lower income neighborhoods with minimal skills and education, missing work for a day or two awaiting trial will almost certainly result in job loss.

This does not serve as an excuse for criminal activity, but some may fall back on criminal connections to provide for themselves or family.  This recurring trend in jail populations is why we have seen the revolving door problem- individuals who cycle in and out jail- continue unabated.

In your article, “The key to safer, less costly jails? Reduce pretrial detention,” you share that the nationwide cost of jails in 2011 was $22.2 billion, growing from $5.7 billion in 1983.  Do you believe we are making poor use of limited resources by having this expense?

AR: Increasingly, individuals are placed in jail who are more of a risk to themselves than to society, and who require treatment for various mental health afflictions. In some areas in the United States, inmates with a mental health or substance abuse diagnosis make up over three quarters of the jail population.  As a society, we are doing public servants working in jail facilities a disservice by expecting that they can treat these types of systemic problems.

When incarcerating individuals who are not a threat to society, the likelihood of becoming more dangerous is increased.  This reality shows that money is not being spent wisely.  The human and financial costs of jail will only continue unless local and state governments begin reform efforts immediately.

NLC’s City Leadership to Reduce the Use of Jails initiative helps cities reduce jail populations and connect individuals with needed services in the community.  For more information and to get started, review three briefs on the topic. For more information, contact Tara Dhanraj.

TaraD_EDITEDAbout the author: Tara Dhanraj is a Senior Associate for Justice Reform at the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.